Live, Worship, Eye-Pop: In Bellevue, Anonymous Welcome Art

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue’s *other* welcome sign, Ohio River Boulevard

A quick blast of psychedelic color might be all you get. From the corner of the eye, a riot of blue and purple swirls, orange and yellow stripes, irregular, jagged boxes. Maybe you don’t see it at all, but just sense something alien and alive at the side of the road. Blink and you’ll miss it, the tired phrase goes–but it’s absolutely true in this case.

Bellevue. The old, down-river trolley suburb prides itself on its community, faith, and bargain retail. So much so, the borough’s most salient feature is a giant, glowing, boomerang modern entrance sign proudly announcing these civic strengths.

So it was no small surprise to discover Bellevue’s other, more humble, and completely anonymous welcome marker.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: windmill, church, apartments

The piece appears to be entirely created from recycled parts. A section of fencing forms the supporting backdrop. It is painted like an impressionist aurora borealis the good citizens of Bellevue are unlikely to witness in real life. Attached to the wooden slats are a haphazard collection of scrap wood, snipped tin, and other assorted bits and bobs. Some have been spray painted through crude stencils; others are just rough, raw lumber.

It’s loose, for sure, but there’s no mistaking the composition as a street-level view of a small town. The specifics are really up to the beholder, but it’s safe to say the artwork could easily represent Lincoln Avenue, Bellevue’s main street, just a couple blocks up the hill.

The town’s live / worship / shop principles are represented in multi-story apartment buildings, a pair of cross-and-steeple churches–even a taco shop. A factory-looking structure, well off the main drag, down by the river, might be ALCOSAN. I don’t know that Bellevue actually has a windmill, but there’s one of those here, too.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: apartment buildings, taco shop, church

Heading outbound/westward on Ohio River Boulevard, one leaves the city as s/he crosses the little unnamed bridge over Jack’s Run. Within the length of a couple blocks, the Bellevue sprawl–a collection of fast food joints, no-tell motels, and oddball old-school holdouts–comes into view.

It is exactly at this point–when one is least expecting it, but perhaps most in need of it–where the colorful blitz of this alternate, wordless Welcome to Bellevue flashes by through the passenger-side window. I’m telling you now: you might encounter it this way–but you won’t actually experience it at 40 miles an hour.

Park the car. Better yet, get to it Orbit style: it’s a terrific, easy bicycle ride from anywhere in Pittsburgh. [Just don’t try to ride on the highway!] Get up close, sit on a stump, and let the passing big rigs rustle your hair, Bellevue-style.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Water’s edge: ALCOSAN possibly?

There’s no information provided with Bellevue’s welcome art, no signature to decipher on the back. It exists on an improbable tiny dirt lot right along busy Rt. 65. So we don’t know who created and placed the artwork or what the motivation was. It’s unlikely borough elders would commission something this folksy–and they’d probably have installed it in a more central spot if they had–but that’s just a guess.

So here, in a total void of facts, is where we lean on pure speculation. It feels very much like the work of someone who just loves his or her borough. Enough to take the time to create a heavy, wall-sized tribute to the town, truck it down to a miniature vacant lot, and hoist the piece up on a set of tree stumps for passing motorists to glimpse as they whiz by.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

In context: Bellevue’s welcome art along Ohio River Boulevard

The artist may want to supply townsfolk with a pleasant image as they arrive home from work in the city. Perhaps it was actually a commissioned job from the owner of one of the nearby houses or businesses. Maybe someone just had a spousal ultimatum to get the damn thing off the porch.

Regardless, we like to think the artist was hoping some visitor might actually slow down and take a deeper look–maybe even bicycle all the way out just to see it. It’s not every day you run across a terrific little public objet d’art installed in a dirt lot next to Discount Tire Center, but it should be, and it can be. That is, if you take the time to live, worship, and/or eye-pop in Bellevue.

Out on the Tiles: Bill Miller, Lord of Linoleum

linoleum collage artwork depicting a steel mill with city in the distance by Bill Miller

“Steal Mill”*

The image is burned into the DNA of America. Even if you were too young to experience it as it happened, you’ll recognize the figure kneeling on a wide campus footpath. The young woman’s arms are extended to either side and her mouth is agape in what may either be a cry for help, scream of rage, or wail of mourning–perhaps all three. Around her, dazed college students seem to have lost all mooring on reality. Laying face-down on the hard concrete is one of the four slain victims of the 1970 Kent State massacre.

linoleum assemblage artwork representing Kent State massacre, 1970 by artist Bill Miller

“Eager Children Cry”, 2010*

This version, however, is different. The black-and-white photo you’re familiar with now appears in a vibrant array of colors–green fields and bright scarlet classroom buildings, blue jeans and red blood. Also, the layers don’t stand still. Rich, swirling grass seems to be in turbulent sea motion under each of the participants; clothing is alive with texture; every detail–hair, shadows, sidewalk–has an optical illusion-like quality that manages to be both flat and with an inverted depth that places any figure on just about any plane, if you look at it the right way.

artwork of woman's face made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

PABCO woman

When we bought the house, the two rooms of Chez Orbit‘s top floor were covered in a pair of space-age “boomerang modern” mid-century designs completely out-of-place in a 19th century brick row house. The linoleum–a pattern with colorful geometric curved squares intersecting and overlapping all manner of sci-fi cubes, circles, and squiggles–had been installed way back in 1955. Yellowed back pages of The Pittsburgh Press from that year formed a thin barrier between the pine floor boards and the unrolled, wall-to-wall tile and served to precisely date the installation. The linoleum had some scuffs and tears for sure, but the material held up.

When we finally decided to work on the third-floor space, this can’t-throw-anything-away blogger dutifully held onto both the Jetsons-style floor covering and the innocuous news of the day for way longer than he had any reason to. Why? Well, the linoleum just seemed really cool and somebody should do something interesting with it.

artist Bill Miller holding his linoleum portrait of George Harrison in his Pittsburgh art studio

Bill Miller (with linoleum portrait of George Harrison) in his North Point Breeze studio

That somebody, we found out way too late, is Bill Miller and for the last twenty-some years he’s been slicing and peeling, tearing and rearranging the nation’s discarded high-performance floor covering into a terrific body of artwork.

Both pastoral and industrial, historic and fantastic, Miller’s (re-)use of the material manages to look both backward and forward, to be sentimental and transcendental, to be both calming and unnerving. It’s sprung from the artist’s imagination and–like the take on Kent State–totally reverent to a real, shared history of America in the 20th Century.

collection of small artworks on Bill Miller's studio wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Studio wall with Donald Trump portrait

“I count on the material to be exciting,” Miller says, “for the linoleum to feed the work.”

The linoleum is exciting. Surrounded by heaped cardboard box-loads, piles stacked from the floor, and work tables full of sliced bits and bobs, Bill Miller’s North Point Breeze studio has a hundred attics’ worth of somebody-else’s memories just waiting to move from the floor and up onto the wall.

There are geometric mid-century designs like the ones we used to have upstairs, along with wood grains, ersatz Oriental carpets, floral arrangements, psychedelic swirls, and designs for children’s playrooms. The particulate from a century’s worth of disintegrating linoleum peppers the air as a dozen different simultaneously-in-process artworks lay on work tables waiting for their next addition on the road to doneness.

in-process linoleum collage artwork by Bill Miller

untitled / in-process studio piece

Don’t worry, though–it’s all natural, non-toxic stuff. Linoleum is made from linseed oil applied to a burlap or canvas backing. The flooring had its run from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century when cheaper, more durable vinyl took over the market. Miller doesn’t mess around with PVC. “Only the old stuff–pre-World War 2,” he says.

Given the age, you’d think there would be a dwindling supply of (re-)usable material out there, but that hasn’t been the case. Just like our top floor, Pittsburgh–and the rest of America–is chock full of old houses with stores of linoleum still in use and gradually getting removed as young whippersnappers move into those old houses and fix them up. “Getting the material out of people’s homes is really powerful,” Miller says, “people have a real connection to the linoleum.”

linoleum artwork depicting the sinking of the Titanic by Bill Miller

“Titanic”, 2014

As one might expect, there are certain colors, shapes, and patterns that either don’t exist or just don’t show up that often in the recycled linoleum supply. True black is particularly rare, Miller says, and he almost never comes across purple.

Other patterns speak to Miller immediately. “The material is part of the composition,” he says. A speckled red and blue on an off-white background was so obviously birch tree bark that it had only one purpose. Looking at it now, laid out on on a work table and (nearly) fully-composed, it’s hard to imagine what the raw piece looked like before it got trimmed down to tree trunks–it’s just so perfect in its final composition.

artwork of forest scene featuring birch trees made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

untitled/in-process (birch trees)

… and then there’s the rock-and-roll. This interview got majorly side-tracked when both parties started geeking out on record shopping, music fandom, Bob Dylan’s radio show, The dBs, and Sonic Youth.

This is only really relevant because Miller is very obviously a huge music fan who fulfilled a personal dream in hooking-up with the Frank Zappa estate to produce album cover artwork for two of the musician’s posthumous releases. The live compilation LP Finer Moments (Zappa, 2012) and spoken-word/congressional testimony CD Congress Shall Make No Law… (Zappa, 2010) both feature Miller’s renderings of Frank Zappa created specifically for each of the records: one, early ’70s Zappa, long-haired and smoking; the other, mid-’80s suit-and-tied, talking with the press.

Miller has converted linoleum into numerous tributes to music icons including The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, David Bowie, Maybelle Carter, Hank Williams, and Brian Eno. Among the collectors of his work are musicians Neko Case, Dave Matthews, and The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit.

Album cover for Frank Zappa "Finer Moments" LP, artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Finer Moments” LP, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Frank Zappa, "Congress Shall Make No Law..." CD with album cover artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Congress Shall Make No Law…” CD, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Oh, there’s a lot more that could be said. There are Miller’s depictions of American history in the form of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, landing on the moon, and the Kennedy assassination, along with more conceptual/impressionist pieces around urban/industrial life and personal reminiscences of his childhood and family life growing up in Cleveland…but that’s something for another story.

It would be great to end this piece with an invitation to view Miller’s work at an upcoming show, but…he’s got nothing scheduled for Pittsburgh in 2018 (sigh). For now, we’ll just say that Bill Miller’s inclusions in the 2016 Re:NEW Festival/DRAP Art show were a major revelation. We’re so glad we were able to track him down and that he took the time to welcome us up to his studio and into the linosphere.

To see more of Bill Miller’s linoleum artwork, check out his web site billmillerart.com, or follow him on Instagram at @billmillerart.


* Photos courtesy of Bill Miller / billmillerart.com. All other photos by Pittsburgh Orbit.

Re:NEW Festival: DRAP-ART

Chinese temples made by artist Gao Yansong from recycled boxes

Gao Yansong “The Chinese Dream Marlboro” and “The Chinese Dream NIKE”

It can’t be easy to light up a brand new festival. Why, you’ve got to do a bunch of planning, organize volunteers, negotiate with venues, talk people into doing umpteen different things, write a grant, create a logo, secure a domain name, and then when the day–or month–finally rolls around, you can only cross your fingers and hope that somebody–anybody–is willing to give your goofy idea a shot. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

The folks that cooked-up this year’s Re:NEW Festival* weren’t mucking about. The festival spans a full month across a dozen different downtown venues, features a slew of staggered events, long-run gallery shows, lamppost banners, glossy printed materials, and of course, printed t-shirts. Oh, yeah–they also decided to stage the North American premier of a world-renowned international recycled art festival/organization, just so you’ll know they aren’t slacking.

sculpture of tiny skiers on lanscape of recycled circuit board by artist David Martin

David Martín “Ski” (detail)

pendant lamp created by artist Imanol Ossa from piano keys

Imanol Ossa “Piano XL Lamp”

From its web site, DRAP-ART is a Barcelona-based “association of artists who have chosen trash to be their material and/or conceptual resource.” Whether you want to call it recycled or repurposed or straight-up trash, (a term DRAP seems to have embraced) the non-standard (typically) mixed media is front-and-center in almost every piece in the show.

Bic pens and piano keys dangle from pendant lamps, a woman’s mod-inspired go-go dress is created with the pop-tops from aluminum cans and sewn with plastic bag “thread”. There are robots made from deconstructed office equipment and a school of tin can-fashioned fish. Phonograph records are laser cut into birds on telephone wires and brown paper bags become the canvas for ashen drawings of industrial Detroit. Bill Miller [the only local in the bunch and one of just two Americans] turns in an incredible wall-sized mosaic/collage of cut linoleum flooring.

landscape by Irene Wölfl created from recycled plastic

Irene Wölfl “Irgendwo” (detail)

sculpture of red fish created from recycled metal can by artist Orson Buch

Orson Buch “Red Fish”

Artists do this kind of stuff all the time, but what makes the DRAP-ART show so out-of-this-world is the level of craft and the deep exploration of the various recycled media. In these artists’ hands, the use of the discarded materials is no gimmick, but rather act as really great prompts to build truly extraordinary new and fantastic things.

We could go on, but suffice to say, it’s a fantastic and truly inspirational show that is thoroughly Orbit-approved. To use the hoity-toity argot of art academia, it’s a real sock-knocker-offer. In fact, right after seeing the show we ran out to buy some new socks. It’s that good.

detail from large mosaic by Bill Miller created with recycled linoleum flooring

Bill Miller “Steal Mill” (detail)

pendant lamp created from recycled Bic pens by artist Héctor Escudero

Héctor Escudero “PENcil”

Back to those festival organizers. This blogger knows it must have been a huge undertaking to put on and we have no insight into whether attendance and sponsorship made all that worthwhile. That said, not all successes can be measured with a calculator. So we’d just like say we sure hope this first Re:NEW festival can itself be renewed next–or, at least, some future–year. It’s a great idea for an art festival and Pittsburgh is a great place to host it. We hope the public is enjoying it as much as we are.

The Orbit will even go as far as to suggest a title for the come-back: Re:NEW : Re:DUX. Don’t even say anything. By the time you’re ready, it’ll sound great.

three-piece sculpture of square boxes with recycled fencing and bamboo by artist Felip Gaig

Felip Gaig “Els Horts de Sant Vicens”

portrait of Mary Cassatt made from egg cartons by artist Verónica Arellano

Verónica Arellano “Mary Stevenson Cassatt”

A note: We included way more photos in this piece than we normally do in a post, just because there is so much great stuff we’re excited about**. Even so, this is just a small portion of what’s actually set up, beautifully-presented, and even for sale over at the Wintergarden. The show ain’t over yet, but you need to shake a leg–it ends this Saturday. Get your kiester down there and see it for yourself while you still can.

Re:NEW Festival’s DRAP-ART show is at the PPG Wintergarden (PPG1, downtown), through next Saturday, Oct. 8. Admission is free.

sculpture made from recycled ironing board, silverware, and advertising image by artist Karol Bergeret

Karol Bergeret “Camarera” (detail)


* A large-scale collaboration between city arts, tourism, downtown, and reuse organizations including the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Carnegie Museum of Art, Andy Warhol Museum, Visit Pittsburgh, Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, Construction Junction, Goodwill, etc.
** And had a hard time not including yet another half dozen photos, but that would just be ridiculous.